Is Holacracy a magic pill to solve all your problems?
Self-management systems are getting more and more interest which means more press. Which in itself, is not a bad thing. Some journalists will fall in love with the topic and some stay rather reserved. And that’s totally fine and normal. However, I see that many times, authors are looking for yet another click-bait title and use Holacracy or self-management as a ‘myth’ and or a dream that never came true (e.g. Zappos is widely discussed as they go through transformation, with an almost paparazzi like attention). And I feel that might be caused by lack of specific examples how self-managed companies function on an everyday basis. That’s why what I want to show you today is not theories, dreams or myths. I want to share the stories of self-managed organisations that you might not heard of before. And not only the romantic and positive ones, but also those who are still not sure whether they like it. Just have a look.
‘You can do anything you wish.’ at Structure & Process
I met Martina Röll, the founder at Structure & Process, in 2013 in Utrecht during a European Learning Exchange on Open Space. She was just starting Structure & Process with another colleague and I remember her reporting from the first meetings, with a lot of excitement. Now, 4 years later, they are a team of 8 and not done growing. Martina was the first person to expose me to Holacracy. The session on a rainy November afternoon opened a whole new world to me and shaped my understanding of Holacracy for a really long time.
When during our interview I ask Martina, what are some core informations about an everyday in a Holacracy run organisation leaders could find important, she says: “You can do anything you wish. You have a general permission. A completely anarchistic general permission. You can simply act.” Everybody is taking on tasks they want to deliver and declares the time of delivery. You cannot assign tasks to anybody. And you also cannot tell them how or when to deliver. You simply manage your own work. And if it happens, that others do not deliver it the time they declared and you cannot wait for them — there is the underlying agreement to move on and do what you believe to be right. All the waiting, delegating, it all falls away. This is extremely liberating. The mental drama of “but we are not ready yet” and “but we still need this and that” becomes obsolete. You just go. And if people do not deliver, they no longer fulfil their tasks, they need to make sure they still keep their jobs.
In Holacracy, jobs are not described by positions, but by the responsibilities and roles you take. It is called “Do and let do”. When you allow this to be the rule for money too, you show people you really mean it. In Structure & Process anybody can spend up to 300€ for whatever they decide important, without previously consulting it with others. The only rule: it needs to help the organisation fulfil the organisational purpose.
Ego is a reoccurring topic, when you talk about new leadership. Martina says: “Holacracy gives you a very strong mirror”. When you complain about others being a certain way or not being different, at some point you just can no longer make it about them. You know, it is actually about you. And all change will have to result from within you. This confronts you very strongly with the question — if I am allowed to do anything, what is it that I truly want to do? What is it, that I truly need?
Holacracy brings you back to yourself in yet another way: it offers no space for expectations towards the others, that they will second-guess what you need, or what you want. This is quite hard for some. It is not how we are socialised, mostly. So yes, it requires some practise. This self-directedness training pays back though with a genuine feeling of more freedom and being less burdened. The self-organisation system is also quite great for high performers, who otherwise often struggle in teams and tend to feel torn between waiting for the others and not living their full potential vs. going their natural pace and feeling like they are a handful.
To support the implementation, sustaining and developing of the system there are some IT solutions available. Structure & Process uses Glassfrog. You have a peek at how an up-and-running organisation looks like, see their structures, purpose, tasks and roles here: https://app.glassfrog.com/organizations/161.
Holacracy did not free VSE’s CEO in the way he imagined
Mary Pruce works in a Pennsylvania based company of 90 employees. Their business has been around for 25+ years. 3 years ago, they decided to introduce Holacracy. The CEO was hoping to share responsibility, move forward with some cultural initiatives of co-accountability and free himself to do other things (like holidays for example) without becoming a bottleneck or single point of failure for the organization. VSE did everything right, so it would seem. They invited HolacracyOne (a Holacracy consultancy) to implement the structure and support them in the transition. They gave it plenty of time. Still, three years down the line, when I ask Mary whether she would say this transition was for the best of the company she says: “Well, to be honest the jury is still out”. Holacracy itself hasn’t increased their sales meaningfully. It has also not freed the CEO to do what his heart desires. But then again, maybe the self-organization system cannot “heal” everything.
Mary says, what convinced her to take the job with VSE in the first place was the friendly, warm, fun and celebratory atmosphere in the office. Holacracy has changed all that. VSE has three major groups of employees: sales and business people (the warmest ones), Technology people (they feel best with the emotional constraints of Holacracy) and contractors who work remotely. From Mary’s perspective the biggest issue with Holacracy is, that it changes the dynamics of an organization’s culture. In a way, it requires people to always control their emotions and separate the personal from the professional. And communicate in a very clear, solution oriented way. “And the reality is, that people are messy. Life is messy”. Where she agrees with others I spoke to is, that this way of managing a business allows conflict to surface and decisions to be made very fast. But it might be, that this focus on being efficient is exactly what will NOT fit to some businesses, or some people.
Middle management needs new tasks at soulbottles
Georg (Tarne CEO & Founder at soulbottles) replied to my call on FB: “Searching for people from organisations of more than 5 employees, who have been working with Holacracy for longer than two years.” After I briefly introduced our approach to him, he said: “You are right. People do not need more theories of how things could be done differently. Now they need to see real life examples to create TRUST, that it actually works”. Understanding, that to start transforming now we need to put trust at the core need for business. It gave me goose-bumps.
Soulbottles is a social business started out of a frustration. The two founders — Georg Tarne and Paul Kupfer run workshops on conflict resolution, personal development and mediation. At some point they felt: not enough impact. They wanted more. And more sustainably. So they decided to create an organisation and use that as an experimentation ground for organising work and leadership in a different way. Their founding belief about relating to one another stem from the Rosenberg Method (also known as Nonviolent Communication). This is great, as Georg says, when you’re running a small company. But it only gets you so far. Structures still stay the same and at the end of the day, people know that you as a leader anyway have the ultimate power. The boss still being the one who can fire you prevents people from showing up fully and taking responsibility and brave action.
On their search for a solution to structuring organisations differently Georg stumbled upon Frederic Laloux’s “Reinventing Organisations”. Reading about Holacracy struck him and they decided to give it a go. That was in November 2014. They organised a two-day workshop for their company and hit it off. The first half a year was bumpy, George recalls, as all was new and often they did more than was needed. Also they started with, what he calls, Holacracy light. Little external support, but a clear commitment from the leaders: “This is the new now, this is how now things are done here. Let us figure it out, so it truly benefits us”. Some time through their third month things started being more smooth. They noticed the amount of meetings dropped and the amount of actual work getting done increased. The work was high pace and every meeting was scrutinised: do we really need it? More problems got solved bilaterally, in short focused sessions and work could continue instantly. The usual pain of meetings overload was not a subject at soulbottles.
As the story often goes — after the initial success they got into trouble. They run against the expiration date for the “light” version of the organisation OS. They had to go back to the Constitution — a compilation of rules for Holacracy and study it again. This allowed them to discover, that things which initially seemed unnecessarily complex now made a lot of sense and were actually solving their problems.
Two years through the process, Georg is preparing to truly passing the ownership of the company to the employees and focusing more on his advocacy and consultant work, serving others searching to transition. Asked, what is the price tag on operating this way he answers: it requires a lot of personal development on the part of the leaders mostly, but actually all of the organisation. You have to prepare it will hurt at the beginning. If you are the person, who is used to executing power and people following your say, it is quite a shock when you have to make sure, that your ideas are actually solid and great enough to convince your own employees. Otherwise you might simply not get them on board. Also, he says, the career paths change, mostly for middle management. Suddenly you no longer can define yourself by managing a team of a certain size and your leadership tasks drop to just 10–15% of your time. This means middle management needs new tasks. And new ways to define themselves. It is not everybody’s cup of tea and you will loose some people on the way. The more crucial is the clarity of the vision and a commitment on the leaders’ part.
What is also true — Holacracy surfaces conflicts. So it requires everybody to stay really focused, on not just making conflicts transparent, but actually solving them. Otherwise you and your business will get hurt. So yes, tame your ego, show up truly and bring your best solution skills to the table. Georg also says: we could not run solely on Holacracy. To make it work for us we needed to add some wholeness practices. Practices, that care for the emotional and the spirit part of people and business. Practices, that support them on the way to show up fully at work.
Why is it a topic that is so close to my heart?
As I mentioned in the beginning I find, that there is not enough real-life cases out there that show how Holacracy looks like in practice. And to answer the title-question: Holacracy will definitely not solve all your problems. It’s not a magical pill. It’s a structure, a framework, a method — however you call it — which will work for some, and not work for others. It won’t be struggle free (but corporates, small enterprises or NGOs are not free from struggles, are they?), but it might be the thing you were looking for. You’ll need to see for yourself.
Another reason is that I am co-organizing the EMERGE Leadership Festival, an event to co-create the new leadership paradigm in Warsaw 20 & 21 June 2017. We’re welcoming the topics of self-management, Holacracy, wholeness, wellbeing at work, among many others. We want the Leadership Festival to deliver real business cases of not only things running smoothly and everything we present being the absolute answer to all questions leadership. We want to present multiple perspectives and diverse reactions to the NEW people might feel. And we do it for the community, with the community and by the community.
If you feel that it’s YOUR event, feel free to use a 10% PROMOCODE: holacracy.
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And if you want to ‘feel’ the event even more, check out our video ;)